Understanding History: and Other Essays

Understanding History: and Other Essays

by Bertrand Russell

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Originally written in 1943 and published in 1957 by Philosophical Library, Inc, these vigorous essays from one of the most distinguished minds of our time reveal several facets of the English philosopher’s thought. The title piece exposes the deadliness of the academic approach to the past, and shows how the reading of history can be a vivid intellectual…  See more details below


Originally written in 1943 and published in 1957 by Philosophical Library, Inc, these vigorous essays from one of the most distinguished minds of our time reveal several facets of the English philosopher’s thought. The title piece exposes the deadliness of the academic approach to the past, and shows how the reading of history can be a vivid intellectual pleasure.

In “The Value of Free Thought,” Russell once again proves himself a ruthless foe of stifling orthodoxy and a fearless champion of free thought, free action and free speech. Then in a series of articles on a subject near to his heart, he explores the effect of atomic physics on such philosophic concepts as materialism, idealism, determinism and faith. In short, here is a complete banquet of provocative ideas—wise and witty; skeptical and profound—to whet the appetite of every discriminating reader.

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Understanding History

And Other Essays

By Bertrand Russell

Philosophical Library

Copyright © 1957 Philosophical Library, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-7571-1


How to Read and Understand History

It is not of history as a subject of academic instruction that I wish to write. The newspapers say that the young do not know enough history when they leave school; the young, after cramming for examinations, feel that they know too much, and set to work to forget what they have learnt as soon as possible. In universities, professional historians give lectures of two kinds: survey courses, which are remembered only long enough to secure credits, and advanced courses for those who mean to spend their lives teaching history to people who will teach history to ... All this is no doubt very valuable, but it is not the subject of this essay. My subject is history as a pleasure, as an agreeable and profitable way of spending such leisure as an exacting world may permit. I am not a professional historian, but I have read much history as an amateur. My purpose is to try to say what I have derived from history, and what many others, I am convinced, could derive without aiming at becoming specialists.

Now in the first place, if history is not necessary to your career, there is no point in reading it unless you enjoy it and find it interesting. I do not mean that the only point of history is to give pleasure—far from it. It has many other uses, which I shall try to explain in the course of this essay. But it will not have these uses except for those who enjoy it. The same is true of such things as music and painting and poetry. To study these things either because you must, or because you wish to be cultured, makes it almost impossible to acquire what they have to offer. Shakespeare wrote with a view to causing delight, and if you have any feeling for poetry he will delight you. But if he doesn't you had better let him alone. It is a dismal thing to inflict him upon school children until they hate the sound of his name; it is an insult to him and an injury to them. The opportunity to enjoy him should be offered to them, and will frequently be successful if it takes the shape of performing a play; but those to whom he is merely a bore should be allowed to occupy their time in some other way. History is not quite in the same case, because a modicum of history must be taught in schools. But whatever goes beyond this modicum should only be learnt by those who wish to know it, and even the modicum ought to be made as entertaining and pleasant as possible. Most children wish to know things until they go to school; in many cases it is bad teaching that makes them stupid and uninquiring.

There is history in the large and history in the small: each has its value, but their values are different. History in the large helps us to understand how the world developed into what it is; history in the small makes us know interesting men and women, and promotes a knowledge of human nature. Both should be learnt concurrently from the first. The method, in the early stages, should be largely by movies with explanatory talk.

History in the large answers (as far as may be) the question "how did things get here?" which is interesting to most intelligent children. It should begin with the sun throwing off planets, and should show the earth as a fiery ball, gradually cooling, with earthquakes, volcanoes, boiling seas and deluges of hot rain. Then gradually the various forms of life should be shown in the order of their appearance—forests of ferns, flowers and bees, odd fishes, vast reptiles fighting furious battles in the slime, awkward birds just learning to fly, mammals, small at first, but gradually growing bigger and more successful. Then comes early man—Pithecanthropus Erectus, the Piltdown man, the Neanderthal man, the Cro-Magnon man. He should be shown flying from wild beasts to the tops of trees, discovering fire and thereby acquiring safety in caves, escaping from sabre-toothed tigers into lake-dwellings, catching mammoths in pits, gradually perfecting his weapons and making himself, by intelligence, not strength, the Lord of Creation.

Then comes the beginning of civilization—agriculture in the Nile Valley and in Babylonia, the growth of the art of pottery, the evolution from stone to bronze, and thence, at last, to iron. At the same time could be shown the first civilized governments and religions—Egyptian kings and their pyramids and toiling slaves, mysterious dark temples lit up only once a year by the rising sun at the summer solstice, armies and the pomp of palaces. All this, in pictures, would delight almost any child, and would bring him, by easy stages, to the point where recorded history begins.

There is one aspect of history in the large in which there has been enormous increase in our knowledge during the last hundred years—I mean the history of the very earliest civilizations. This subject has a great deal of fascination, both in itself, and because of the detective ability that it calls for. The first great step was the deciphering of cuneiform, the writing of the Babylonians and Persians. Through tablets that have been excavated, a great deal is now known about the laws and customs and business methods of ancient Mesopotamia. Then there is the astonishing Minoan civilization of Crete, of which in classical Greece only a few legends survived. Unfortunately the Cretan script cannot, so far, be read, but from architecture and sculpture a great deal can be learnt. It seems that the Cretan upper classes were luxurious and rather decadent, fond of bull fights in which they employed female toreadors who performed the most astonishing acrobatic feats. It is only in modern times that nations have discovered how to be civilized without being decadent. The Cretans, rendered effeminate by luxury, appear to have been swept away by Greek pirates, who were then still barbarians. But for the victories of the Greeks over the Persians a millennium or more after the fall of Crete, Greek civilization might have disappeared as completely as that of the Minoan age.

The history of the development of arts and crafts, in its broad outlines, can be made interesting to very young children if it is presented in pictures with explanatory talk. The development of housing, of locomotion, of ships, and of agriculture is worth knowing something about before any detailed study of history begins; it gives a general sense of technical progress, slow at first, and then gradually more and more rapid, and it helps to form an imaginative picture of daily life in epochs very remote from our own. The part played by great rivers in the beginning of civilization is something which an intelligent child of six or seven years can understand. It is a mistake to begin education entirely from what is familiar; children have more free imagination than adults have, and they enjoy imaginative pictures of things very different from what they are used to. This is shown in the pleasure that almost all children find in playing Indian.

The later stages of history in the large are, in the main, less suitable for very young children than the earlier stages; probably, in most cases, they ought to wait until about the age of ten. It could then be explained that there have been three great ages of progress: the first, when agriculture was discovered, when kings became powerful and States began to grow, when vast buildings were erected in honor of kings and gods, when the art of writing was invented, the Babylonians discovered the rudiments of mathematics, and the arts of peace and war passed out of the barbarian stage. Next, after thousands of years of ossification, came the great age of Greece, from the time of Homer (whenever that was) to the death of Archimedes at the hands of a Roman soldier. Then another long period of decay and darkness, followed by the incredibly rapid progress from the 15th century to the present day. Throughout recorded history, progress has been the exception, not the rule; but when it has come, it has been swift and decisive.

Throughout this survey, certain important principles should emerge without being unduly emphasized. Periods of stagnation are those during which individuals feel powerless; periods of progress are those during which men feel that great achievements are possible, and that they wish to have their share. There has been in recent times a dangerous tendency, not unconnected with totalitarianism, to think only in terms of whole communities, and to ignore the contributions of individuals. But consider: some man or men invented the wheel, but in the American Continent it was unknown until the white men introduced it. Probably it was not one man who made the invention, but several men, starting from round logs used as rollers; however that may be, the difference that these men made to civilization is immeasurable. The need of individual genius is shown by the fact that the Mayas and the Incas, though in some ways highly civilized, never hit upon this simple invention. The difference between our world and the world before the industrial revolution is due to the discoveries and inventions of a small number of men; if, by some misfortune, a few thousand men of exceptional ability had perished in infancy, the technique of production would now be very little different from what it was in the 18th Century. Individuals can achieve great things, and the teacher of history ought to make this clear to his pupils. For without hope nothing of importance is accomplished.

History shows that the spread of civilization to new areas, as opposed to its intensification in a given region, has usually been due to military conquest. When a more civilized group conquers one which is less civilized, the conquered, if they are not too far beneath their conquerors, learn before long whatever their masters have to teach. But the converse also happens: when the conquerors are less civilized, if the war of conquest has not been too long or too destructive, they are apt to learn from their subjects. Greek civilization was diffused throughout the East by Alexander's victories, but throughout the West by the defeats inflicted on the Greeks by the Romans. Gaul and Spain were civilized by becoming subject to Rome; the Arabs, conversely, were civilized by conquering the Eastern portions of the Roman Empire. But although conquest has had a great effect in increasing the area of civilization, it has usually damaged its quality. Greece was less civilized after Alexander than before, and Rome was never as civilized as Greece had been.

Some of those who write history in the large are actuated by a desire to demonstrate some "philosophy" of history; they think they have discovered some formula according to which human events develop. The most notable are Hegel, Marx, Spengler, and the interpreters of the Great Pyramid and its "divine message." Various huge tomes (some of which I have possessed) have been written about the Great Pyramid, showing that it predicted the main outlines of history from the time when it was built to the date of publication of the tome in question. Soon after that date, there was to be fighting in Egypt, the Jews were to return to Palestine, and then there was to be the Second Coming and the end of the world. There has been fighting in Egypt, and the Jews are returning to Palestine, so the situation is alarming. However, there are still a good many Jews outside Palestine, so perhaps the message of the Great Pyramid is not for the immediate future.

Hegel's theory of history is not a whit less fantastic. According to him, there is something called "The Idea," which is always struggling to become the Absolute Idea. The Idea embodies itself first in one nation, then in another. It began with China, but finding it couldn't get very far there, it migrated to India. Then it tried the Greeks, and then the Romans. It was very pleased with Alexander and Caesar—it is noteworthy that it always prefers military men to intellectuals. But after Caesar it began to think there was nothing more to be done with the Romans, so after hesitating for four centuries or so it decided on the Germans, whom it has loved ever since, and still loved in the time of Hegel. However, their dominance is not to be eternal. The Idea always travels westward, and after leaving Germany it will migrate to America, where it will inspire a great war between the United States and Latin America. After that, if it continues to travel westward, I suppose it will reach Japan, but Hegel does not say so. When it has travelled round the world, the Absolute Idea will be realized, and mankind will be happy ever after. The Absolute Idea corresponds to the Second Coming.

It is odd that this fantastic theory—just as absurd, in its way, as the superstition about the Great Pyramid—should have been accepted as the acme of wisdom by innumerable professors, not only in Germany, where it appeals to national vanity, but in England and America, where it has no such adventitious advantage. What is still more surprising is that it underlies the doctrine of Marx, which is lauded by his disciples as the last word in all that is scientific. Marx made, it is true, a few changes: the "Idea" was replaced by the mode of production, the successive nations embodying the Idea were replaced by successive classes. But there was still the old mythological machinery. The Communist Revolution replaced the Second Coming, the dictatorship of the proletariat represented the rule of the saints, the Socialist Commonwealth was the emotional substitute for the millennium. Like the early Christians, Marx expected the millennium very soon; like their successors, his have been disappointed—once more, the world has shown itself recalcitrant to a tidy formula embodying the hopes of some section of mankind.

But not all general formulae professing to sum up the course of past and future history are optimistic. Spengler has revived in our day the Stoics' doctrine of recurring cycles, which, if taken seriously, reduces all human effort to complete futility. According to Spengler, there are a series of civilizations, each repeating in considerable detail the pattern of its predecessors, each rising slowly to maturity and then sinking into inevitable decay; the decay of our civilization began in 1914, and nothing that we can do will arrest the march of our world towards senility. This theory, fortunately, is as groundless as it is gloomy. The previous cycles require a very artificial arrangement of history, with too much emphasis on some facts and too little on others. Even if this were not the case, the instances of past civilizations are too few to warrant an induction. And it ignores the qualitative novelties introduced by science, as well as the quantitative novelty resulting from the world-wide character of modern wars, involving the possibility of a world-wide domination of the victors. The Preacher said there is no new thing under the sun, but he would not have said so if he could have seen a large power station or a battle in the stratosphere. These things, it must be confessed, might not have prevented him from saying "all is vanity," but that is a different question.

There are things to be learnt from history, but they are not simple general formulae, which can only be made plausible by missing out half the facts. The men who make up philosophies of history may be dismissed as inventors of mythologies. There remain two very different functions that history can perform. On the one hand it may seek for comparatively small and humble generalizations such as might form a beginning of a science (as opposed to a philosophy) of history. On the other hand, it can, by the study of individuals, seek to combine the merits of drama or epic poetry with the merit of truth. I am not prepared to put either of these two functions above the other. They are very different, they appeal to different types of mind, and they demand different methods. One might take "Middletown" and Plutarch's Lives as illustrative of the two types of history. I should not wish to be deprived of either, but the satisfactions that they offer are as far asunder as the poles. The one views man objectively, as the heavenly bodies are viewed by an astronomer; the other appeals to imagination, and aims at giving us the kind of knowledge of men that a practiced horseman has of horses—a knowledge felt rather than expressed, which it would be impossible to translate into the language of science, but which is none the less useful in practical affairs.


Excerpted from Understanding History by Bertrand Russell. Copyright © 1957 Philosophical Library, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Philosophical Library.
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